Comics, Racism, Semantics, Sexism

Reading Phantom & Mandrake comics of 1930s: A mirror to race and gender equations

Comics played a large role during my childhood. In the late eighties, I used to look forward to the newest issues of Indrajal Comics. They published stories featuring many superheroes, but the two main characters featured were my childhood heroes Phantom and Mandrake. When Indrajal Comics was in circulation, I used to read them often, but I wasn’t fanatical about them. Then after they went out of publication in 1989, I went through phases of disinterest, to inquisitiveness, to obsessively searching for the books. It was a quest, almost like a pilgrimage to amass all Indrajal Comics strips ever published. Once I’ve nearly finished that, I learned that Hermes Press is going to reprint all Golden era comics of Phantom. A few years later, Titan Comics decided to bring out the other character created by the prolific Lee Falk — Mandrake the magician. The stories I grew up reading were reprints of many later issues, but it was through those stories that I formed an idea about the central characters. Going back where their journeys first started, these reprints of early years’ issues had taught me new things that would not have been very apparent thirty years back.

Reading 1930’s Mandrake is almost a throwback to the society and its expectations of that epoch. That’s why, in the very first Mandrake adventure, we are introduced to Lothar as Mandrake’s “Giant black servant”. He is black, wears a leopard skin or skin printed fabric, calls Mandrake “Master” and speaks broken incoherent English. It was written in the description that Mandrake’s “black slave” Lothar does this or that. Thirty years back, the Lothar I was introduced to, was Mandrake’s friend, like equals, spoke many languages, was a black belt. And he is more brown and less black. He called Mandrake “Mandrake”, not “Master”. The image of Lothar was perhaps how he was perceived in post-depression America — the black slave of the magnificent Mandrake. The Lothar I grew up with is the 1960’s version, on the other hand, is around the Civil Rights Movement and had undergone a major change of character. It just echoed an image of how society started to perceive non-whites as equals. Likewise, when we think about the character of Hojo, the Japanese chef who speaks many languages and heads the Inter-intel, you cannot imagine him being featured in the 1930s. In the 60s comics, the societal lenience on race and colour were reflected in the contemporary comics like Mandrake and Phantom.

A similar shift is noticed in how women were presented in these stories as well. The 1930s versions used terms to describe women we now can’t even think about. The comics were positively sexist, but only branding the artist who created them as sexist would be almost anachronistic. Lee Falk was a common man with extraordinary skills in creating comics. His ideas about women reflected the perception of women in society. They were shown to be fragile, dominated by male characters. Emmeline Pankhurst and Amelia Earhart hadn’t made a substantial change in people’s perspective towards women. On the other hand, the 1960s editions show much more parity in the depiction of women in the comics. They are far more independent, strong and outspoken. In fact, many of the comics around the 1960s started showing women as villains because perhaps there was still no willingness to show a female character as good as the male protagonist, but by showing them on the wrong side, it was inevitable that they will be defeated at the end. Nevertheless, the depiction of female characters in Phantom and Mandrake comics has gone through a major overhaul and the comics published characters whose only role in the story wasn’t about being the weakling in the adventure and throw herself on the central character every now and often. In some cases, the efforts of featuring women, especially the partners of the central protagonist were so intense that at times their qualities appeared as exaggerated as the superpowers of the male characters. They had to be super rich, speak several languages, hold a role of UN ambassador, know martial arts, related to nobility — in short, it cannot be a common woman to be associated with an extraordinary superhero. Indirectly the new generation authors sustained the patriarchy. However, that is a different argument. At least, women were no longer seen as merely a pretty face.

So, when we turn the pages of the first phantom book from Hermes press, where Diana Palmer asks who he was after he saved her and how could she thank him, Phantom just kissed her and said “Like this” and dives back in the sea. The next time they see each other, Phantom is aware that Diana is going out with someone, yet he kisses her while saying goodbye. The word consent probably didn’t exist then in that context. Men could choose their woman and taunt, tease, grab or kiss them, or worse. I guess much hasn’t changed now, but at least we pretend to be more civil now and push issues like this under the carpet. Comics is not an exception. The patriarchy that was blatant in those early years, they became subtler, but never eliminated. That’s why, the first son always becomes the next Phantom, not the first child. I think Frew or the Danish version of Phantom has only just thought about making Heloise the 22nd Phantom rather than Kit.

The storyline during the 60’s comics was also made more informative and less fantastic. The 1930’s Mandrake wasn’t just a magician with phenomenal hypnotising powers, but he used to do magic as well. In one of the first episodes, Mandrake transforms one of his aides into a leopard. On another, he lifted a man froom falling into a fire-pit. He could make things happen rather than just pretending to, like the later stories, more like a Harry Potter than David Blaine. In my view, with changing times, the readers became savvier about science and reality. Whilst Superman continued flying around and melting every obstacle with his X-ray vision, Mandrake became more humane. He became a hypnotist and helped the authorities to fight crime. Likewise, in the later issues, Phantom did not control the thousands of miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. He becomes the chief of jungle patrol, the security force that keeps peace in the jungle. It’s no longer down to Phantom to tackle all the miscreants. Although the introduction of Stegy the stegosaurus and Hzz & Hrz cave monsters in phantom stories wasn’t a shining example, on a broader scale, the characters were more down to earth.

During 1930s America, racism was rife, a non-white principal character was unimaginable, and women in comics were merely a pretty face – used to fill up a few tiles and to prove the bravery of the comics heroes. In the 1960s, all social divisions were still there, yet the difference was remarkable. These changes in the society are clearly visible in the Mandrake and Phantom comics of the two eras. As study subject, Phantom may be even more interesting, since not all stories were reprints of the American versions. Team Fantomen, for example, was an entirely different set of stories, written and illustrated by Scandinavian artists. The stories of Team Fantomen may present a different outlook to life, possibly a reflection of the Scandinavian society of the epoch, especially since they have been in circulation for over 60 years.

As children, we saw comics as the world we would like to grow up into and have an idol. As grown-ups, we become a part of the period we are living in, adhering to its societal norms. We learn that heroes have their follies, etched into their persona but their creators. It would have been interesting, if Lee Falk was still illustrating, to see how he would have represented the society and relationships during the 21st century. Will the 22nd Phantom marry someone or will he have a partner? Will there be a female Phantom? Will Mandrake and Narda argue over silly things? Will there be LGBTQI characters? Will they feature interracial couples? Will there be a Phantom who doesn’t like to be Phantom but do it because he/she’s expected to? And going forward, how will the stories shape up in future? These are compelling questions for which we have no answers. Perhaps I’ll leave the task to my children to dissect the stories of 2030 and compare them with 1930 versions. I hope that I’ll live to watch their appalled expression reading that Mandrake had a giant black slave, or Phantom forcing a kiss on Diana. I hope turning the pages of the comic books of the 1930s and 1960s will make them appreciate how far society will have been progressed in a century. And how we are in the need of superheroes, because humans, despite having come a long way on the vices prevalent in the 20th century, have created new evils. Perhaps the Mandrake and Phantom of tomorrow will feature the inequality, terrorism, post-truth politics, environmental catastrophe, the middle-east, religious persecution. Perhaps they never will, if the artist is not bold enough to rise above the societal mediocrity, like Lee Falk in 1930.

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Art, Film review, Nostalgia

An Obituary to Wolverine

12/10/2017

Logan died last night. In fact, he died on 1st March this year, or in a distant 2029 — whichever way you look at it. But I wasn’t aware of it. To me, Logan died yesterday. No tears were shed, no sleepless nights, but inside I just felt something has changed forever. There was a sense of emptiness. The 17-year stint when the X-men were a part of my life has come to an end. And I know that it’s only going to get worse.

I grew up in an imaginary world of superheroes. In my early childhood, it was the comic strips of the Phantom — the ghost who walks, Mandrake the magician, Flash Gordon and alike. Then there were Batman, Superman and Spiderman in comic books and with their film franchises. All these characters had one thing in common. They were infallible, invincible. They fought many battles, they lost some, but they came back like the phoenix from the ashes. At the end of each book, or each film, you’re left with a feeling that they are there — whichever imaginary city or country they were protecting. We knew that they will bounce back. They come back. Always. Except for Phantom of course, who’d die but pass on the legacy to his offspring, who’d become the next Phantom. Phantom dies, but Phantom lives on.

When the superheroes only meant Batman, Superman or Spiderman, back in 2000 entered a new franchise that I had no idea about before. Rather than a single protagonist, they were a bunch of people. Or mutants, to be precise. The mutants on the film had remarkable powers, but like many others, I became a fan of the Wolverine. He wasn’t endowed with supernatural abilities, but when you gave up hope, Wolverine was the one who was in charge. A hard grafter, almost fighting with a feral instinct. That’s why in films like The First Class, you end up waiting for more since you don’t see him much. Wolverine became the next sensational superhero. X-men is the only film series that I waited as eagerly as Harry Potter films, and that tells something about it. Now knowing that Wolverine dies, the interest in any further X-men film has ebbed away. X-men won’t be X-men without Wolverine. Period.

After the initial moments of numbness, I tried to think why have I been so upset? Ultimately, it’s just another fictional story, created to earn millions in the box offices across the world. It is a big franchise and the crew cannot continue forever. It had to come to a stop. Better this way than like The Last Airbender, that created a lot more expectation and then fail to follow through with the sequels. So, what was the root of this sadness? There are many reasons, as I thought about it. Death is perhaps the main factor. We saw Wolverine die, and Professor X. Death came as a finality. I’ve known people, who passed away unexpectedly, and it is difficult to come to terms with that. Perpetuity is something we probably seek unconsciously, and comic book characters that withstand the test of time could provide that permanence. Many Golden era heroes have passed that acid test and are still equally popular after possibly four generations of readers. The untimely deaths of Wolverine and Charles broke that promise of permanence. We watch throughout the film how Logan is struggling with his health. Although in many scenes it was alluded that he is really ill, viewers could still hope that by some miracle he’ll wake up again, and perhaps even rejuvenate. But that doesn’t happen.

And waiting for that miracle, we see how powerless Logan and Professor X has become. They are shadows of their past, or more precisely ghosts. They seemed like mere mortals. They lived hiding away in a disused factory. Even on the run, they don’t really stay on focus. They looked like a spent force. Expendables. They live in a virtually mutant free world. There wasn’t anything left to fight for. 2029 represented a world where no X-men are left other than Wolverine and Professor X. Charles possibly killed all the mutants in one of his bouts of uncontrollable mental waves.

But the more pertinent reason was the end of hope. Watching films or reading books about superheroes makes you push the boundaries of your imagination. They make you believe in the supernatural and that all these things are possible — at least for the duration of reading the book or watching the films. Watching them become powerless permanently — their commonness take away the sanctuary inside your mind that somewhere there is this person who can kick some ass to the bad guys. A concept similar to god in a way. More so because in your mind you know they can do bugger all; they don’t even exist. Logan featured this death of hope. He remained a tour de force in almost all X-men franchises but suddenly he’s gone. Not disappeared mysteriously so he could make a dramatic entrance later on like Jane in X-men three. But he died. And he was dying throughout the film, it was not a sudden shock. Like all death, Logan reached the finality of the Wolverine. That’s when the hope finally evaporates away.

The death of Wolverine may not mean much as far as the film franchise is concerned. Although Hugh Jackman hinted that he will no longer play Wolverine, with a right script and a right fee, he may change his mind. The possibility of Wolverine being featured in a film is still big. We know now that he dies in 2029. That’s still 12 years away, and there can be as many X-men films as possible. Even after 2029, films can be set in the past like we see The Wolverine set in 1945. As long as Hugh continue to look like the invincible Wolverine seventeen years back, he can carry on X-men film franchises. So, it is still possible to see Hugh play Wolverine in future.

But it won’t be the same. In the past films, you knew that Wolverine will be back again. He’s less of a mutant, but more savage. But after watching this film, no matter how savage Wolverine appear in the next film — if there is any — Logan with all his vulnerabilities and resignation will come back to mind. Death, as the great leveller, has claimed another victim, who will now fade into oblivion.

As the next generation matures, X-men will probably become a thing of the past, just as are the Arnie or Stallone films to the present generation. The tapes will remain, and their hay days will live on through the dusty memories of the parents and grandparents who once dreamt of doing what they were doing on the screen when they grew up. Wolverine is not there yet, but we can say Logan marked the end of that era. Memories of Wolverine are still vivid, and that’s how we’ll remember him — the pain in his eyes, yet the savage outlines of his face, always on alert, trusting no one and finally, with his shiny Adamantium claws that hadn’t become rusty with disuse. The Wolverine who dominated my cinema experience in my twenties and thirties. Logan has been the swan-song of an exciting seventeen-year stint. It’s a shame that he chose to end Wolverine’s legacy and dash any hope that Wolverine will live on, like all other superheroes that were created. But then, it’s Wolverine. He’s the perennial bad boy; since when did he play by the rules?

So 1st March 2017 is the day when the hope ended. That mutants and humans will live side by side. A vision that Logan himself was very sceptical of. Melancholy is a profound word, probably not applicable to superhero films. But it was melancholy that filled my heart, seeing something, that has been a part of me, end. The last scene was pretty symbolic when Logan’s daughter turns the cross over his grave into an X. It could be a symbol of optimism, similar to le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. Or, it may mean that the story of X-men ended there, with the last true X-men biting the dust. Who knows what’ll happen to the mutants now?
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Comics, Nostalgia

Where have you gone, Mike Nomad?

I grew up in a period reading the amazing tales of the comic strips. Unlike Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon etc, Mike Nomad always portrayed a haggard look, almost detached and aloof…a common man solving mysteries and in most cases getting into trouble and redeem himself. With the frenzy of republishing Gold age comics, perhaps Mike should get a chance to relive as well.

keithroysdon

I was a newspaper fan from childhood, years before I would have guessed my writings would appear in print on a nearly daily basis. Decades before the Interwebs made it possible to connect with the big, wide world on an instantaneous basis, TV, radio and newspapers were my connection, my contact, to everything out there that was bigger than me.

Just as Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” was the avenue for a kid from Central Indiana to learn about the finer points of Jewish comedians and great jazz, so newspapers were a way for a Cowan elementary-schooler to begin to form a rudimentary grasp of current events.

And newspaper comic strips were the icing on that cake of information.

I read virtually all the comic strips, from the beautifully drawn but kind of impenetrable, plot-wise, “Prince Valiant” Sunday strips to the bread-and-butter comedy of “Hagar.” I read the comics page from…

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